Skip to contents
Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

As Violence Grips The West Side, New Task Force Aims To Address Mental Health Crisis: ‘It’s OK To Seek Out Help’

The task force will focus on community outreach to help residents break the cycle of trauma.

Mekhi James' mother holds a photo of her 3-year-old son at a vigil for shooting victims in Austin.
Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago
  • Credibility:

AUSTIN — A new West Side Behavioral Health Task Force convened by State Rep. La Shawn Ford will address the community trauma at the root of much of the violence in the area.

The task force is made up of mental health organizations, outreach groups and social service agencies that will work to bridge the gaps between the behavioral health resources in the area. The group will coordinate local programs to deliver the appropriate resources where they are needed most and raise awareness of the community trauma that has become normalized on the West Side.

Members of the task force, including Loretto Hospital, are working to expand their mental and behavioral health programs.

“With the level of violence on the West Side, psychological trauma care is mandatory for our families,” Ford said. “Violence is a result of poverty and must be addressed with increased human services and support.”

Rashad Saafir, who chairs the task force and leads the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center, said the collaborative formed after the wave of gun violence over Fathers Day weekend. The murders of 13-year-old Amaria Jones and 3-year-old Mekhi James in Austin made it clear there is a mental health issue and a cycle of trauma on the West Side that needs to be broken, Saafir said.

Saafir said residents suffer a tremendous burden from institutional racism, high unemployment and limited access to resources, which creates the conditions where internalized anger and behavioral health issues thrive.

“We have generations of African Americans who live in these communities whose lives have been demeaned in some very fundamental ways. And actually it is kind of the culture or the nexus for some of the violence that we are seeing,” Saafir said. “A lot of it is an inability to regulate normal human emotions like anger.”

The outreach and screening work of the task force will address the need for community education on how to identify and manage trauma that often goes untreated. Outreach workers with partner organizations like Fathers Who Care and Habilitative Systems will help those who witness and are impacted by violence get the mental health services needed to break the cycle.

“We shouldn’t wait for people to get to the point where they’re experiencing some severe symptoms of trauma before they get help,” Saafir said. “We know that people who have been victimized and traumatized are likely to commit acts of violence in the community if that trauma is not dealt with.”

Habilitative Systems CEO Donald Dew said the task force is also working to support formerly incarcerated people and their families, as formerly incarcerated people often struggle with trauma as they navigate reentry into society. Their approach will connect the dots between behavioral health and the social determinants of wellness.

“Folks may very well be suffering from PTSD and we’re expecting for them to reconnect with the families,” Dew said. “But if housing is an issue or if employment is an issue, the task force is going to have to help not only that person, but their family to deal with some of those needs and issues associated with reentry.”

The task force hopes to overcome the silence and stigma around mental health by reaching beyond the walls of mental health centers and meeting people where they are at.

“There’s a stigma in the African American community. So we don’t take advantage of behavioral health services,” said Rev. Walter Amir Jones of Fathers Who Care.

Jones said building up trust and long-term relationships within the community can encourage people to open up about their struggles with mental health.

“The purpose of being boots on the ground is to build up the trust to let folks know that it’s OK to seek out help,” Jones said. “It’s OK to say that you don’t feel good. It’s OK to understand there’s things going on that disrupt your whole way of life and put you in another state of mind.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.